By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
The 2018 election will bring a dramatic change in the future of the Moapa Valley Justice Court. Long-time Moapa Valley Justice of the Peace, Lanny Waite, has announced that he is retiring after the current term. Waite has served on the local bench for more than 30 years. His retirement opens the field for a new generation of candidates to pick up and continue that role.
Running for the Moapa Valley seat will be two candidates, both local attorneys. Judge Waite’s son, Kyle Waite, a resident of Logandale, will be one of those candidates. The other is distinguished southern Nevada attorney Gregor Mills, also of Logandale.
A third candidate, Drue Solomon, had initially filed to be on the ballot as well. But last week Solomon announced his intention to withdraw from the race. His name may still appear on the primary ballot, but Solomon said he will not be seeking the position.
The Judge’s Son
Kyle Waite said that he has spent his life watching and learning from his father serving on the bench.
“He has been a huge influence on me,” Waite said of his dad. “And his experience will continue to be an invaluable asset if I am elected. In considering to run, I have been able to ask him questions and draw from the perspective that he has gained over the decades he has served.”
Waite grew up in Moapa Valley. He graduated from Moapa Valley High School in 2002. He then attended college at Dixie State and, later, went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
At BYU, Waite originally set himself on an academic track to go to medical school, with dreams of becoming a physician. But he changed his mind toward the end of his undergraduate studies after speaking to several physicians who had become disillusioned after the Affordable Care Act became law in 2008. They advised him that it had become increasingly difficult to be a physician in that environment.
So Waite made a change in plans and opted to study the law instead. He went to San Diego, California and attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Waite graduated in December of 2012 and passed the bar exam in February 2013.
While preparing for the bar, Waite worked as a clerk for Gregor Mills’ firm, Mills & Mills, in Las Vegas. After passing the exam, he continued at the firm for about a year, working as an attorney.
Waite spoke positively of his experience of working for Mills. “Gregor is a great guy and I loved working with him,” he said.
Later, Waite took a position in a healthcare-related field. He works for HMS (Health Management Systems), a company that defends the Medicare Trust Fund by auditing hospitals and other providers to ensure accuracy of billing practices and striving towards general cost savings in health care.
Waite has spent the past four years in that position, operating in federal administrative court – a process he says is somewhat akin to what happens in small justice courts like Moapa Valley’s.
Over the past year, Waite has also spent some of his off-work hours serving as a judge pro tem, a person who sits temporarily for another judge as a substitute. That role has taken him to many small, outlying justice courts in the southern Nevada region including Laughlin, Searchlight, Goodsprings and others.
Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Waite received an important endorsement from the Las Vegas Police Protective Association (LVPPA), the union representing active and retired police officers in southern Nevada.
The Defense Attorney
Gregor Mills has had a substantial career as a defense attorney in the region over the past 15 years.
Like Waite, Mills had a well-known and respected father to learn from. Lamond Mills served in the high-profile post of U.S. Attorney for Nevada during the 1980s, a time when many top Las Vegas political leaders were brought down in a bribery sting operation.
Gregor Mills also graduated from Moapa Valley High School. He then attended Utah Valley University (UVU) in Orem, Utah and later went to UNLV where he graduated with a business degree. He attended law school at UNLV. After school, he went to work for his dad’s firm in Las Vegas.
After Lamond Mills died in 2004, Gregor formed a firm with his brother, Byron, where he is still practicing today.
Over the past 15 years, Mills has had a prolific career as a defense attorney. He has argued in front of judges all across the region including the local courts as well as Mesquite, Alamo, White Pine county, Pahrump, Douglas County, the Clark County District Court, Family Court and more. He has argued before the Nevada Supreme Court on five different occasions and has brought suit in the federal courts as well.
In those settings Mills said he has handled a huge variety of issues ranging from Temporary Protective Orders to preliminary hearings; drug possession charges to DUIs; domestic violence cases to evictions and trespassing charges; and virtually everything in between.
Mills said he has defended almost every possible position in family court cases including from the perspective of parents, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster homes, group homes, Child Protective Services workers and more.
Mills added that this varied experience would be of great value on the local bench. “It is just knowing the law,” he said. “It is being in those situations; experiencing and preparing the arguments and presenting cases time after time before many different judges. There isn’t anything that a justice court judge will face that I haven’t seen before. Being involved in all these different areas, I have seen and heard different arguments and have had to deal with them.”
Philosophy and Approach
Both candidates say they are dedicated to continuing a fair and balanced approach to the court. But both are also committed to maintaining the safety and security in the Moapa Valley community.
“When I am judge, my job is to help the community,” said Mills. “But helping the community also means helping that individual before me; because I certainly don’t want them to repeat the same thing or re-offend. So I am going to use what I have learned to help the community by helping the individual.”
Mills emphasized the importance of the ideal of justice being blindfolded, or completely impartial. This is especially true in a small town where people know and closely associate with one another, and where reputations can quickly become tarnished.
“When it comes to a trial, I can promise this: the defense will start the case at zero,” Mills said. “No shred of evidence has been heard, no rumors flying around in the community will have any weight, there will be no pre-trial memos. I’m not going to communicate with anyone about a case before it is heard.”
Mills said that it is disturbing sometimes, as a defense attorney, to walk into a court and see the arresting police officer walking out of the judge’s chambers just before the trial.
“If I am judge, you won’t be able to call me and discuss a case before the trial,” Mills said. “My door will be shut just before the trial. The trial will be based on nothing more than the evidence that comes before me in court.”
For his part, Kyle Waite also emphasizes the importance of maintaining fairness in the courtroom. “I am fully committed to equality and treating each person equally and fairly,” he said. “Everyone who walks through the door will be treated equally no matter what their background or race or religion or whatever. That is how it should be.”
Over the past two months, Waite said he has spent his weekends walking the neighborhoods of Moapa Valley, knocking on many doors, introducing himself to local voters and listening to their concerns. He has found that experience valuable in finding out what the important issues are to people. He plans to continue that process throughout the campaign and hopes to eventually be able to knock on every door in town.
“The hope is that if people have questions, concerns or fears about the court, I can address them face to face with them and better understand those concerns,” Waite said. “I want the message to be that my door will always be open. If there are concerns let’s talk and figure them out. I’m willing to hear people out on things.”
One of the concerns that has come up again and again is an apparent problem with drug abuse in the community, Waite said. He has been asked repeatedly how he plans to address it.
“My answer is simply through tough sentencing,” Waite said. “Offenders need to be aware that there will be tough consequences for drug action. That is important in deterring the issue, I think.”
‘Fresh Start’ Or ‘Banishment?’
Waite says that he supports a local approach which his father has termed the “Fresh Start Program.”
“Fresh Start” is a technique, devised and employed by Judge Waite, where a repeat offender in the local court is given a final option. Either he/she can serve a six month sentence in the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas, or he/she can voluntarily agree to leave the local jurisdiction for a period of three years.
The method has become somewhat controversial in the community. Many are in favor of sending repeat offenders packing. But opponents have said that it is more akin to a draconian banishment than a “Fresh Start.”
Kyle Waite says that he has gradually come to support the idea and plans to continue it if he is elected.
“Originally I took a neutral position on the program and said that I wasn’t entirely sure about it yet until I talked to people,” Waite said. “But after talking to a lot of people, door to door, I have experienced an overwhelming majority that have supported it. Only a very few have said that they don’t like it. That is why I will continue it.”
Waite argues that the program is not about kicking people out of town. Rather it is a last resort option for them.
“This is usually the last straw for a person,” Waite said. “They have been through rehab and counseling and other things. There is usually a lot of history of second chances given. Then they get convicted of another crime and the judge’s hands are tied. He reaches a point where he doesn’t have anything more to do but put that person in jail. That’s when it is left up to the person. If I was facing that situation I would much rather stay out of town for three years than go to jail for six months.”
Gregor Mills, on the other hand, is quite frank about saying that he would not continue the program. He says that the policy underlying it is “fundamentally flawed.”
“I am just not going to do that,” Mills said. “My feeling is that, if an individual commits a crime; and I have got to weigh whether they will be a threat to the community and therefore need to be locked up, or whether more rehabilitation is needed; then I am going to deal with it right here at home. I’m either going to put them in jail, or get them into programs that can help them. I’m not going to give them an opportunity to escape those two things to go out and cause problems in a different community.”
But Waite insists that the main design in the program is to get the offender out of the community and away from the circle of associates and friends that have caused the problem to begin with. This then offers them a “fresh start,” he said.
“The hope is that when they get out of the local situation and away from their friends that are causing them to sink to that level, that they will bring themselves out of that and not have those contacts in their new town,” Waite said. “Hopefully they will break that cycle. So it is not just kicking them out, but that they need to get out of this situation. The need to go to a new place and find new associations and friends.”
Mills, on the other hand, acknowledges that getting people out of a problem environment is key to drug-related issues. But that only works if it comes in conjunction with some kind of treatment, he said.
“Right now, in this program, they are being sent out with zero guidance,” Mills said. “It is just ‘Don’t come back’. There are no status checks or requirements to go to AA sessions. There is nothing. It’s just sending them off to Las Vegas or North Las Vegas. I don’t know where they go. But simply moving them to a different town where they may have no contacts at all and no employment prospects; that is not going to work.”
Waite’s response is that, if a defendant continues to be a problem in other jurisdictions then judges there can deal with it. “They can either put them in jail like they would have faced here, or get them into treatment programs that we don’t have available in Moapa Valley,” Waite said. “If they go to, say, Las Vegas, there are a lot more resources there for people with drug issues than there are here. So they are more likely to be able to get help.”
But Mills insists that all this would be better done in the home court. “As a judge, if you are going to find that a defendant needs punishment or needs help, or a little of both, then just do it,” Mills said. “Don’t tell the person to head over somewhere else and kick the problem down the road.”
Value of Experience
Kyle Waite claims that the advantage he holds over his opponent is that of actual judicial experience. Over the past year, Waite says his experience as a pro tem judge has uniquely equipped him for the position on the Moapa Valley Justice Court.
“That experience of actually acting as a judge is a lot different than just being a courtroom attorney,” Waite said. “It gives a unique perspective that you don’t get as an attorney. You have to look at both sides. You have to know the law. But you also have to look at the story from both perspectives and balance it out to determine what the ruling will be. Justice has to be served, but you also have to be fair.”
Gregor Mills points to his large volume of trial work, over 15 years and before a myriad of different judges. This gives him the experience, understanding and expertise needed for presiding in justice court, he said.
“It is called the “practice” of law for a reason,” Mills said. “That is truly what it is: practice. I am not the same lawyer today as I was five years ago or ten years ago or when I started. I have evolved and changed and learned over time. My opponent hasn’t actually done a trial. He doesn’t have that experience. Until you have done trial work, you really don’t know what it is about. I don’t know a lawyer who does as many trials as I do. I’ve seen a lot of things and have had to hone my craft over the years. I think it is that kind of experience that is needed here in the Moapa Valley court.”